Henry Sugimoto’s paintings speak softly. Their compositions are harmonious, their palette tame, and yet they are profoundly confrontational. They tell the story of opportunity given and opportunity harshly snatched away. One of the painful revelations in Sugimoto’s retrospective, “Painting an American Experience,” at the Japanese American National Museum, is just how characteristically American his experience was--in its gifts and its deprivations.
Meritocracy was not just a mythic American promise in Sugimoto’s early years but, for him, a bankable reality. Born in Wakayama, Japan, in 1900, Sugimoto came to the U.S. in 1919, following his parents, who had earlier settled in a farming town near Fresno. Sugimoto deviated from the conventional course of the Japanese immigrant of that era to pursue an education in art, graduating with honors from the California School of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of Arts and Crafts) in Oakland in 1928. He then made a pilgrimage to France to study and paint, and one of his moody-skied landscapes made it into the prestigious Paris Salon in 1931.
Returning home in 1932, Sugimoto’s career continued to ascend. His first one-man show, at San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor, was so well-received that the museum extended its run, moved it to a larger gallery and asked the artist to add paintings. In spite of the press coverage identifying him cloyingly (and inaccurately) as the son of a samurai (grandson, in fact), Sugimoto’s star had risen based on his talents alone, without regard to his race.
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, however, the insider became an outsider. Race became the decisive factor in his life and the central theme in his art. In accordance with Executive Order 9066, issued by President Roosevelt in 1942, Sugimoto, his wife and young daughter, along with 110,000 other Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, were forced to abandon their homes, belongings and professions, and were herded into assembly centers, then internment camps, in the name of national security.
Sugimoto spent three years incarcerated, first in the Fresno Assembly Center, then in two camps in Arkansas. One jarring juxtaposition in the show marks the drastic shift in Sugimoto’s life, his field of vision, and his scope of possibility. Next to an expansive and vividly colored rendering of Half Dome in Yosemite from 1935 hang two smaller paintings of the Jerome Camp, a bleak, desiccated landscape in pale gray and straw. The low bunkers are edged by unsightly swamps strewn with lumber scraps. From Eden, Sugimoto had landed in purgatory.
Until his incarceration, Sugimoto had painted only the placid and serene, whether Carmel seascapes or French village scenes. His work was sensually driven, a celebration of color and form free of weighty intellectual or political underpinnings. A brief trip to Mexico in 1939 had inspired Sugimoto to feature the human figure more prominently, almost mythically, in the spirit of the Mexican muralists. But it wasn’t until he and his family were reduced to numbers by the government that the human, the personal and individual began to dominate his art. Paint ceased to be a luscious end in itself and became for him instead a means of chronicling and communicating.
He began to sketch and paint the routines of camp life--eating communally, chopping firewood, ironing clothes. Though he had never been attracted to the more radical forms of Modernism, after Pearl Harbor his life suddenly took on all of the fractured discontinuity of a Cubist canvas, all of the incongruity and illogic of Surrealism.
He continued to paint, for the most part, in a straightforward realist mode, but now conflict coursed beneath the surface. A conventional portrait of his daughter becomes unnerving with the addition of a numbered identification tag pinned to her aqua dress. Her carefully particularized features clash with the depersonalizing tag, charging the painting with powerful, contained friction.
“Evacuation (One Dollar for a Nice Icebox)” (1942) is just as restrained, and just as disarming. With only a few days to divest themselves of their belongings before being interned, Japanese Americans were prey to opportunists. Sugimoto couched this travesty in the simplified terms of a symbolic still life. The symbolism runs even thicker in his “Nisei Babies in Concentration Camp” (1943), in which an armed guard patrols a barbed-wire enclosure containing a cluster of brick-colored innocents in diapers.
At first, Sugimoto painted clandestinely, not sure if his work would be disallowed, as was photographic documentation from within. But camp authorities ended up doing more than just tolerating his efforts. They used Sugimoto in a propaganda film as an example of the freedom and opportunity characterizing the internment camps.
Things weren’t as cushy as they appeared in that film, and neither did they return to normalcy when the war ended and the cage door opened. Sugimoto and his family settled in New York. Unfortunately, anti-Japanese bias didn’t dissolve with the end of the war. During the war years, 100 of Sugimoto’s paintings at his San Francisco gallery were auctioned, but he was unable to recover either the work or the proceeds from the sale. His wife took a job as a typist, and he found work with a textile manufacturer.
Sugimoto continued to work and rework themes from his camp years, painting murals and making a striking set of woodblock prints, but it took decades for public receptivity to catch up to him. Interest in the Japanese internment picked up in the late 1970s, peaking with the 1981 hearings of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (at which Sugimoto testified), and the nation’s official apology and token reparations payments to surviving internees under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.
This show, co-curated by Kristine Kim and Karin Higa, and accompanied by a useful and attractive catalog, is Sugimoto’s first American retrospective, and is made up largely of works bequeathed to the museum when Sugimoto died in 1990. It’s a responsible, thorough effort, including examples from all phases of his career, fleshed out by personal photographs and documents from the artist’s archive.
In his unpublished memoir, Sugimoto recalls his mother admonishing him to “live your life so that when you die, you will leave behind a worthwhile mark.” It may have been Sugimoto’s pleasant landscapes that earned him fame in his younger years, but it is his utterly disturbing chronicle of the internment camps that leave that lasting, indelible mark.
Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., (213) 625-0414, through Sept. 16. Closed Mondays.